How a 1916 leader joined a unionist family: From the Archives, May 2nd, 1959

John Brennan, the brother-in-law of Thomas MacDonagh, explained how the 1916 leader came into his largely unionist family in this article written more than 40 years after MacDonagh’s execution

Some of our family first met MacDonagh when, shortly after the opening of St Enda's College, in 1908, my sisters Grace and Muriel and myself were brought there on a visit by Mrs. Dryhurst, a Dublin-born journalist working in London. We were greeted on arrival by a young man who came racing down the steps with his hand outstretched in welcome. He had curling brown hair, handsome features, and the most humorous and friendly expression in his grey eyes.

Mrs. Dryhurst’s introduction was to tell MacDonagh our Christian names and then advise him to “Fall in love with one of these girls, and marry her,” a piece of blatant matchmaking which would have rendered most young men and girls of that period tongue-tied with embarrassment. But MacDonagh accepted the challenge by saying laughingly: “That would be easy – the only difficulty would be to decide which one!”

A few years later he had decided, and on January 3rd, 1912, he and Muriel were married in the little tin chapel which then stood in the place now occupied by the Church of the Holy Name [in Ranelagh, Dublin].

It was a "mixed marriage," my sister, Muriel, being then a member of the Church of Ireland, and MacDonagh a Catholic, and as such was a quiet wedding, with neither bridesmaid nor best man. MacDonagh had invited his greatest friend, Padraic Pearse, to fill the necessary role of witness; but, when the time fixed for the ceremony had arrived, and passed, and every allowance had been made for Pearse's having been unavoidably delayed on the road, the priest, the bridal couple and my parents decided that some other witness would have to be found immediately. And so it happened that a man who was trimming the hedges outside the church was called in to supply the place of Pearse.

In November, 1912, Donagh, the first child of the marriage, was being christened in the Church of the Three Patrons in Rathgar. Pearse was unaware of the ceremony, but happened to come into the church to say his prayers. Walking up to him with a beaming smile, MacDonagh greeted his dilatory friend with the words: "Well, you got here in time for the christening, anyway."

When MacDonagh became a frequent visitor at our home, we found to our joy that we had gained not only a delightful and witty brother-in-law, but a discreet and valuable ally. Our father was a Catholic, and our mother a Protestant; and both were in a greater or lesser degree, Unionist in politics. Their twelve sons and daughters, on the other hand, were like what present-day politicians call "splinter parties," for we had amongst us Fabian Socialists, influenced by Bernard Shaw; ardent Sinn Feiners, whose thought was moulded by Arthur Griffith's paper, and a few half-hearted Unionists, who remained such chiefly because they knew that all who did not conform to this political belief were ostracised in the tennis club. When we were all gathered together at meal-times, each of us spoke out in support of his own political creed. Finding from experience that if we paused in an argument we would never be allowed to resume it, we adopted the very unmannerly fashion of pointing at what we wanted at table, thereby "holding the floor" against all others. This habit of ours amused MacDonagh intensely, and on one occasion when he had been momentarily silenced by our clamorous tongues he rose from his chair, threw up his hands in mock exasperation and said: "Have mercy on me – I've never been allowed to finish a sentence since I married into this family."

Because of his charm and kindliness, he became a great favourite with my mother. Though she disapproved strongly both of his politics and religion, he could influence her in other things and we soon learnt to ask his help in solving any difficulties with our parents. My mother, for instance, objected to her daughters smoking, so we consulted MacDonagh. He arranged that he would bring Professor David Houston to our house, telling him beforehand to give a talk in medical terminology on the virtues of tobacco. When he casually offered his cigarettes to her daughters, and was sternly rebuked by my mother, he told her in solemn scientific language that tobacco was one of the greatest safeguards against microbes – and her objections to her daughters' smoking ceased.

Read the original article here

Selected by Joe Joyce; email fromthearchives@irishtimes.com

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